Home of Professional Cinematography since 1996

Just Shoot The Gaffer

Published : 10th August 2003


Art writes about his gaffer nightmare...

I have my ideas about what makes a good gaffer. I have worked with some great ones and have worked with some bad ones. I strive to make myself a great gaffer and to improve on every shoot. I read AC religiously.

I think that a great gaffer needs to develop a great eye and be very good in dealing with people, on and off the set.

Because I work with a different out of town DP almost every time I work, I am curious about what DPs on this list believe are the ideal qualities of a great gaffer. I often get feedback when I f**k up (everyone does) or when I could have done things better or when I ask specific questions. I get lots of "attaboys" at the wrap party...

But what are the key things you look for?

Psychic ability? Lighting? Speed? Quality? Poop deflector? Information conduit?

I'm just curious... and yes, I have some interviews coming soon !

Andrew Gordon
Gaffer
Regina, Saskatchewan
Canada



No disrespect any gaffer, but I want to share my experience. In those days when I was assisting in commercials one of the Director/DP always hired me as his assistant because he knows that though I was assisting, I am capable of shooting that job. So, he always tells me what kind of finished product he is expecting out of that shoot and lights the set with the gaffer and lets me take the reading and set the exposure including at times setting up the Camera position. He always told me that helps him to concentrate more on direction since I am there to take care of these things.

But one of the Gaffers we worked with, did not like that at all. Once we had 2 commercials to shoot back to back for a week with one day break in between. The gaffer kept on telling me not to take any reading and stick to assisting. I told him that I am doing what I was told to do and if he has problem with that to talk to the boss. The Gaffer was a close friend of the PM. So he made the PM fire me for no valid reason after the first Job and they told me the Clients were not happy about my behaviour and the DP feels awkward to say that to me so it is better if I would leave. They went back to the DP told him that I got some other job so I left the town. The DP got very annoyed for me leaving like that and he would not return my call later.

One day I bumped on him somewhere, at that time he asked how can I leave like that when I had a commitment with him?, then only everything came into light.

Do not you think at that time I was feeling like ...... the Gaffer.

Suresh ROHIN.
Cinematographer.
Eastman Films Inc..
Canada & India.


Aandrew Gordon writes :

> Psychic ability?

Absolutely!

But that's something that everyone on the crew needs

As a DP who travels a lot and has to work with a lot of different gaffers the main thing I look for is enthusiasm, someone who gives a shit.

I welcome suggestions, but as with any other crew member the gaffer needs to recognise that moment where "I want it like this" means it.


That applies to the DP just as much as anyone else as well, we have to respond to the director.

A willingness to experiment with different approaches is good.

I never want to go through the experience of a shoot where the gaffer kept arguing with me about how I described what I wanted.

It was a very fast shoot, music video, with a director I'd worked with many times before, I knew exactly the look he was after. If I said "a clear glass 10 there cut there" it was because that would give the look we needed.

He wanted me to describe the look I wanted and he’d decide how to do it.

I ended up saying "I'd like the look of a 10k clear glass hung there..." after a couple of hours he went off to the green room in a huff and his best boy took over and all was well!

On the other hand I'll sometimes say "I need something big there"! or "give me a shaft of some kind across that" Or "just bounce any piece of crap of something big there, don't care what it is as long as I get a big soft source at that angle and T4".

Adaptability, that's what I need!

Cheers

Geoff Boyle FBKS

Director of Photography
EU based
www.cinematography.net


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>good gaffers


*Being focused on what's happening ALL the time

*Anticipating

*Suggestions to the DP regarding his instructions/requests that might be more effective than just executing them

Al Satterwhite
DP/LA



Enthusiasm, anticipation, technical knowledge, an understanding of lighting principals, crew management and thinking ahead are very important, but sometimes you have to get back to the basics.

When working with a new gaffer. I explain to them that there are two ways to work when the DP wants to do something with the lighting.

1/. Tell the gaffer what you need.

2/. Get up from the dolly; look around to try to find the gaffer. If you can find him, make your way over to where he is standing or sitting, get his attention and tell him what you need.

I explain to them that I much prefer the first method.

It sounds simple, but it is the biggest problem I have in working with "less experienced" gaffers. I am shocked at how few of them know how important it is to be right by the camera and paying attention.

In LA, at least, the training process/apprenticeship method seems to have pretty much broken down and while you might find plenty of gaffers who know how to work with the lights, manage the electrical supply, even manage a crew, it is more difficult to find the ones who understand how to make life easier for the DP and how important it is to the success of the job (and a future working relationship) to do so.

It is not a general breakdown of civilization that is to blame, however. I have no trouble at all getting camera assistants who are totally on the mark and respond quickly and enthusiastically to every request.

Blain Brown
DP
LA


>It sounds simple, but it is the biggest problem I have in working with >"less experienced" gaffers.

I agree, but its also difficult at times for a Gaffer, Key Grip to always be near camera, they can very well be behind a set wall or around the corner getting a glimpse of a particular issue they're trying to solve, or something like that.

The other thing I tell the keys, is to ALWAYS have a rep on set (that includes during blocking). If they need to step off for a moment, tell me "Jeff's here to cover for me" so I know to look/call for him and not the Key. It happens often that I'm calling for the key, and the person is distracted and didn't listen for my calling for his boss (and not him)... better to let me know what's happening and I can look for Jeff instead.

Eavesdropping is one of the best skills a crew could have. I love the crews that listen and sometimes even seem to have ESP and telepathically have things coming in before you even call for them.

Tangent: I have really grown to love walkie. I don’t always use them all day long, but if needed I can be in touch with Camera/Grip/Lighting, and even tweak in something myself with a grip or electrician while the Gaffer's working on something else (I try to keep this to a minimum though). It really helps with speed when there's a real crunch. I've also shocked a few AD's with how much I find them with the walkie.

Downside is I need to keep myself off the walkie. Sometimes I'll channel hop 3-4 things to Cam/Grip/Lighting and I always try to do whatever I can face-to-face and keep their channels clear. Sometimes I get too walkie happy, and I have to catch myself. Recently on an insert trailer I hopped onto channel 1 to tell the AD something the director wanted (couldn't hear us outside the monitor tenting due to wind/traffic noise), and then realized I was also all over the Motorcycle Police's channel. Oops.

Another advantage is when a particularly difficult problem is being solved, and I'm not occupied with something else you can listen in and learn what the issues are from the guys up there trying to fix something. Its helped me weigh several dept's specific needs at once without each key having to relay the specifics.

OK, I'm a control freak. I'm working on it though.

By the way, for 24p shows its almost a necessity to move quickly - if you're by the monitors and the waveform's fan too loud to be close to set, and you have to be able to talk to communicate efficiently.

Mark

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>*Suggestions to the DP regarding his instructions/requests that might >be more effective than just executing them

I love this. Sometimes I consider myself to be more the "arbiter of the look" than the creator of it. I like gaffers with their own brains who see what I'm trying to do and can add to it. I also need them to be able to accept the occasional "no" that comes out of my mouth when I don't think their idea is quite right or I think it'll take too much time.

My philosophy: praise them when they give me what I want, praise them even more when they come up with a better idea that works for the project, thank them and apologize when they give me a suggestion that I decide not to use, apologize profusely when I say "no" to something that, in hindsight, we could have done but didn't look feasible to me at the time.

I like talking to a gaffer in advance of a shoot and asking, "So, what cool gags have you seen lately?"

What I hate: having to tell a gaffer where to put every single light. Or a gaffer that just doesn't get what I'm talking about. On this last shoot the gaffer kept suggesting the Gem light for the interview set. I checked it out and didn't think it was right for the look. I wanted a source that was - at least- 4'x4' and fairly close in. I threw that out at him and kept getting responses that involved smaller sources. I finally had to say something along the lines of, "Medium Chimera or 4x4 frame of grid: pick one."

Someone mentioned people skills. I agree with that. I don't think the gaffer necessarily needs the political skills the DP does (and I've met several who aren't DP's simply because they don't want to be in the middle of set politics) but they need to know how to do their work without disrupting a set.

We were shooting in a couple of buildings at AFI. On several occasions the gaffer and the electrician I was working with went off on rants about how they've worked with AFI before and had a lot of trouble with students and getting paid. There's a certain lack of sensitivity when this conversation happens loudly in an area filled with students. I need to invest in a cattle prod...

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"



#1 Psychic ability, #2 cooperation, #3 knowledge and #4 flexibility.

These are the most important traits, I think, in a gaffer or just about any crew member on set. But especially in the person who has the most direct affect on my performance before the camera rolls.

Fast is always good but comes as much from numbers 1, 3 & 4 above as anything else.

Something I really appreciate when shooting video (HD or NTSC) is a gaffer who watches the best monitor on set during takes and rehearsals. The gaffer I want to work with again isn't standing off to the side waiting for me to point out a problem. He's got his eyes glued to a monitor looking for the problems I'm seeing. If it's a film shoot he's still spending some time looking at video assist for things that can be fixed or made better.

Sometimes even the best gaffers aren't worth the trouble. A few years ago a client had already hired the gaffer when I was brought in at the last minute to operate. This gaffer has a great eye and to his credit he can balance the lighting in a scene without a meter better than me or any gaffer I've ever worked with. But, cooperation is not his strong suit. The client was director and DP but didn't really want to be bothered about F stops and such. It was a super 16 shoot and after everything was ready I pulled out my meter and took a reading. Wide open at the ISO for 7274. Now, I know it's going to transfer better if I can fatten up the neg by a 1/3 of a stop and the lens will be sharper if I can stop down a bit so I say to the gaffer… "Ah, gee, I need just a little more light, can you give another half stop?"… His reply was "What lens do you have up, I'm reading a 2.0 with my meter and it looks great"… "Exactly! WFO! I'd like a little more exposure" I say.

As far as he was concerned it looked good and I had enough light and he was finished working on that shot. Since I wasn't the DP I was between a rock and a hard place. I shot it wide open and hoped the lens was sharp enough to handle it. In the end the client was happy, the transfer looked OK and the balance of light in the shot was perfect. Could the shot have been a little sharper? Could it have had a little less grain? I believe so and it wasn't the gaffer's place to deny me the chance to explore that possibility.

I guess after cooperation, maybe the most important thing a gaffer gives me and the production are options and flexibility.

Randy "that's my 2 cents" Miller, DP in LA


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> so I say to the gaffer "Ah, gee, I need just a little more light, can you >give another half stop?".

With all due respect, I'm inclined to backup the gaffer on this one. Seeing as how you weren't the DP, and you didn't discuss what t-stop you wanted BEFORE he set up the shot, you were "brought in" to a group of people who had worked together in the past without you .....

The way I'd expect it to work would be that if you felt strongly about this, you would go to the DP and explain your suggestion to him, THEN if he wanted to use it he'd go to the gaffer. If he then refused, yeah, he'd be in the wrong IMHO.

As a gaffer, I'm all about making the DP happy, that's my job. Keep in mind to "give more light" is often one of the more difficult things to do. Less is easy, more often means changing EVERYthing. Which is fine if that's what the DP needs, but for an operator who was just brought in to ask for it would make my eyebrows go up also.

By the way I'm really enjoying this thread. More, more!

Phillip Badger
gaffer, LA

http://home.earthlink.net/~badger111/index.html



>It sounds simple, but it is the biggest problem I have in working with >"less experienced" gaffers.

When I was a gaffer, many years ago, I always stayed by the camera much to the annoyance of many of the other department heads. Gaffers like myself became known as gentleman or pointer gaffers. I would pay attention, anticipate and keep my mind on the set up. Whenever physical work needed to be done on the set and taking me away from the dolly, my standard (and joking) line to the grips, who often complained most, was..."I really can't be seen doing any of that because if a producer see's me doing that it may set a bad precedent and they might even expect me to work like that all the time". But I worked all the time on great jobs and it was the gaffer the DP usually took on a distant exotic location.

DP's love to have the ear of the gaffer close by to help execute the lighting and tweak it during a set up. Conrad Hall used to want the gaffer right next to him because he worked so intuitively. There is also a tremendous freedom to be able to see something happen, accidentally, that you hadn't previously thought of doing and use it in the scene. Tabletop guru Elbert Budin used to tell us to turn on the light when you approach the tabletop set up because he may see something by chance that he hadn't considered. That's creative freedom, to be egotistically secure enough to admit you could never have thought of everything and be willing and able to see new things.

The biggest problems I used to have on the set as a gaffer were, when close to the dolly, DP's that would want you to execute decisions that weren't in your department. "Have the grips set the flag... tell the props to move that..." it put the gaffer in a very delicate position and I highly recommend trying to avoid that situation.

I loved gaffing and have a tremendous respect for the underpaid gaffer and, for that matter, all experienced department heads. If you like that type of gaffer who works as your second set of eyes, then be sure to give them the respect they deserve.

Jim Sofranko
NY/DP


>With all due respect, I'm inclined to backup the gaffer on this one.

With all due respect, me too.

First of all, if I was the DP and an operator pulled out a meter on the set I'd be all over his butt. I'm not saying this is what you were doing, but if I saw that on my set I'd assume there was a power grab going on and I'd clamp down real fast. At the very least I'd wonder why an operator was taking light readings. There are things that operators should bring to my attention, but exposure questions aren't usually one of them.

I used to see gaffers doing a lot of the work for director/DP's when I was assisting on commercials. The gaffers lit the set and called out F-stops, the director/DP directed and operated. It seemed to work out fine. If it made them happy who was I to argue otherwise?

If I'd been hired as the operator on your shoot I would have operated, period. Doing anything more lands you in a political situation that turns out to be more sophisticated and slanted against you than you ever dreamed. The gaffer knew what the score was.

"Could the shot have been a little sharper? Could it have had a little less grain? I believe so and it wasn't the gaffer's place to deny me the chance to explore that possibility." - Actually, it was. You weren't there to make the shot sharper, or decide whether the shot was going to happen at a T2 or T4. And... he knew it.

There are plenty of famous DP's that I've heard about or worked with who shoot wide open and do marvellous work.

Heck, if all the film turned out to be too dark it wouldn't have been the operator's problem. Besides, if they've worked together before, things must have turned out well enough.

I've decided that since I've complained so much about the gaffer from my last shoot I need to issue some praise for a change: Charlie Kelly, sound mixer. Fast, professional, totally unobtrusive, great sound.

Highly recommended.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"

http://www.artadams.net/



>You didn't discuss what t-stop you wanted BEFORE he set up the shot….

True I didn't discuss a stop in advance and as I said I was brought in late. In fact, 3/4 of the lighting was done when I got there because the director planned to operate until about an hour before the shoot. I know well that taking away light is the easy part. The real problem was that we didn't have a DP on the shoot. No offence to the director. On other shoots like that with him he expected me to operate, decide a stop, take care of making sure he got a good looking negative and work with the gaffer. If I had been there only to operate that's what I would have done and kept my mouth shut. But the director put me in a situation of being partially responsible for the final look of the shot. That's where the problem was, no one clearly in control.

Since then I do work as the DP with him, it was an awkward one time thing. It wasn't the first time I had worked with the gaffer so what I did expect was him to at least contemplate helping me, helping the image. In the same way that I would work with the key grip if he was between a rock and a hard place with a 12x12 and there was a stand creeping into the edge of frame. I would try moving the camera placement right or left to accommodate. It felt like a quick "no" because he was happy with the way it looked.

In the end the actor hated the way he looked and there was much wringing of hands and an eventual re-shoot.

Randy Miller, DP in LA



>If I had been there only to operate that's what I would have done and >kept my mouth shut.

Ah, there were a couple of key details that didn't come through. In that case I take it all back. You were so screwed. Short of rat poison in someone's coffee you were up against the wall waiting for the revolution to come. (Fortunately the revolution never happened.)

I hate stuff like that. Someone's GOT to be in charge.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"

http://www.artadams.net/



>It sounds simple, but it is the biggest problem I have in working with >"less experienced" gaffers.

When I was a gaffer, many years ago, I always stayed by the camera much to the annoyance of many of the other department heads. Gaffers like myself became known as gentleman or pointer gaffers. I would pay attention, try to anticipate and keep my mind on the set up. Whenever physical work needed to be done on the set and taking me away from the dolly, my standard (and joking) line to the grips, who often complained most, was..."I really can't be seen doing any of that because if a producer see's me doing that it may set a bad precedent and they might even expect me to work like that all the time".

But I worked all the time on great jobs and it was the gaffer the DP usually took on a distant exotic location.

DP's love to have the ear of the gaffer close by to help execute the lighting and tweak it during a set up. Conrad Hall used to want the gaffer right next to him because he worked so intuitively. There is also a tremendous freedom to be able to see something happen, accidentally, that you hadn't previously thought of doing and use it in the scene. Tabletop guru Elbert Budin used to tell us to turn on the light when you approach the tabletop set up because he may see something by chance that he hadn't considered. That's creative freedom, to be egotistically secure enough to admit you could never have thought of everything and be willing and able to see new things.

The biggest problems I used to have on the set as a gaffer were, when close to the dolly, DP's that would want you to execute decisions that weren't in your department. "Have the grips set the flag... tell the props to move that..." it put the gaffer in a very delicate position and I highly recommend trying to avoid that situation.

I loved gaffing and have a tremendous respect for the underpaid gaffer and, for that matter, all experienced department heads. If you like that type of gaffer who works as your second set of eyes, then be sure to give them the respect they deserve.

Jim Soprano
NY/DP



Jim Sofranko wrote :


>When I was a gaffer, many years ago, I always stayed by the camera >much the annoyance of many of the other department heads. Gaffers >like myself became known as gentleman or pointer gaffers.

Mr. Sofranko is one of the many fine gaffers I learned from back when I was an electrician and grip in the old NABET days in New York. (In fact there is a photo from a Sofranko gaffed commercial in my lighting book. I was a grip on that one.)

The people I worked with back then (electricians, gaffers, grips, props, etc) are the standard I compare crew people too.

As far as "gentlemen" gaffers; who was the British gaffer in NABET who always wore white pants on the set? He was one of the top guys back at that time and much respected by everyone I knew.

I completely subscribe to the idea that the gaffer is a supervisor and doesn't handle lights or climb ladders. I want a crew chief, not another Indian. It is low budgets and too small crews that sometimes makes this difficult. I forget what cameraman it was at that time who held that ideally what he wanted was his gaffer over one shoulder and his key grip over the other.

I hate to see a gaffer up on a ladder, at the generator or in some other way inaccessible to me. If I come home from a shoot day hoarse from shouting instructions across the set, I know things have not gone as they should.

Blain Brown
DP
LA



In reply to:

> As far as "gentlemen" gaffers; who was the British gaffer in NABET

Ed Myers wrote:

>Jonathon Lumney

It's actually Jonathan Lumley. I had the pleasure of working with Jonathan on many jobs. At that time, NABET crews did the majority of commercials in the East.

Many a "Director/Cameraman" came to that position with little or no background in the camera dep't. They needed a gaffer who could light for them. As a result, Jonathan -- as well as several other gaffers -- was actually more DP than gaffer when working with these "Director/Cameramen". Since Local 15 contained all the crafts, it was also far easier for gaffers to become DPs, which many did.

BTW, I can assure you that Jonathan was not adverse to hard work, and that there were plenty of jobs when he went home just as dirty as the rest of the crew. I think he just had lots of pairs of white pants.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP